Monday, 18 February 2008

Good sense and nonsense in the sharia debate

Theo Hobson has some useful insights into the Rowan Williams sharia affair. Writing in the Tablet he argues against the thesis that the archibishop is a natural liberal who has been led astray by the demands of his office:

His advocacy of the rights of gay Christians during the 1990s was misleading: it made him seem the liberal he never really was. He was always an Anglo-Catholic above all. He sought to develop and update the open, liberal side of this tradition, but not in a way that might jeopardise its integrity.

Above all, he refused to combine Anglo-Catholicism with a general liberal agenda. Indeed he revived the Anglo-Catholic suspicion of secular liberalism that dates back to Newman. The liberal state, in this view, offers itself as an alternative community of salvation; it tempts us into supposing that we can dispense with the Church, or at least water it down, and develop a more progressive form of Christianity. This leads to weak forms of Christianity that are unable to resist dangerous ideologies: most obviously, the liberal Protestants of Germany embraced Nazism. It is Williams' anti-liberal ecclesiology that is the root cause of the present controversy. In a sense it's not really about sharia law, or Islam: it's about the relationship between a Catholic conception of the Church and liberalism.

For Williams, authentic Christianity occurs within a clearly defined social body, an "ethical community" as he has sometimes put it. Without this, Christian culture will be dispersed by the cold winds of secularism. There is a need for strong resistance to the various negative spirits of the age: consumerism, celebrity, hedonism and so on, and this resistance can only occur within an alternative social world, walled off from mainstream culture.

Only from within a religious subculture can secular modernity be seen for what it is: dehumanising. He has referred to secularism's "unspoken violence", and to modernity as "an atmosphere in which people become increasingly formless, cut off from what could give their lives ... some kind of lasting intelligibility". He sees secular liberalism as a quietly nihilistic force that robs human life of full significance, as a demonically subtle tyranny that looks and feels like freedom.

This theme was prominent in the Dimbleby Lecture that he gave almost exactly five years ago: it is perhaps the key to understanding his agenda last week. He argued that secular culture always serves material agendas (someone's desire to sell you something, someone's desire for your vote); it shuns comprehensive visions of human good. Religion addresses the whole human being, it puts all short-term concerns into perspective. A religious tradition "makes possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market".

He sees his role, then, as defender of the various subcultural spaces that resist the logic of secularism, the enclaves within our culture where fully human meaning is made. And of course these are not only Christian. In a curious way his vision echoes Prince Charles' declaration that he would like to be the defender of faith rather than the faith. He wants to be the defender of the endangered cultural space that insists on the priority of God. If the Muslim form of such space is tied up with sharia law, we must try to accommodate this.

The problem with this idea of his role is that he heads an institution with a logic that is at variance with it. The Church of England cannot really be described as a subcultural space in which secular liberalism is resisted. Because it is the established Church of a society that is liberal, and largely secular, it is strange for its leader to speak of secular liberalism as the enemy. Whether he likes it or not, Williams does not just represent the card-carrying members of faith communities: he also represents the huge amount of Britons who are semi-Christian or post-Christian; people who see Christianity and liberalism as complementary.

Such people (most of the nation) are sympathetic to Christianity but sceptical of religious institutions. They want a liberal form of Christianity to lurk in the background of national identity - in order to bless liberalism rather than contest it. It is rash to dismiss this desire as muddled or hypocritical, for it is rooted in British history: our liberalism and our version of Protestantism developed side by side. Liberal Protestantism is basic to our national identity, although people don't tend to think of it as "liberal Protestantism" but as "our Christian heritage" and "our liberal tradition".

This is what Williams seems not to grasp, or chooses not to. It sets him apart from the figures I likened him to earlier, Temple, Ramsey and Runcie. For these Anglo-Catholics had an instinctive understanding that the British people will only tolerate an established Church that is sympathetic to liberalism; they saw the necessity of working with this national religious instinct, rather than seeking to antagonise and deconstruct it.

The anger that Williams has unleashed is not just down to Islamophobia. It is also a lament for the liberal Anglican culture that has been slowly collapsing for a decade or two, and has all but been lost. Such is my regard for Williams' intellect that I suspect that he knew that he was drawing attention to this, initiating a new debate about whether a liberal established Church is still meaningful. He is saying, in his deep, gentle voice: "Perhaps it's time to consider whether the old religious set-up is still what most of us really want."

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the same magazine, the normally level-headed Clifford Longley endorses Williams' dystopian vision of contemporary secular society:

But the real clash visible in the media this week was not Christianity versus Islam, but religion versus secularism. If Dr Williams analysed carefully much of the press comment, he would have observed that the rule of thumb was something like “the more Islamic they are, the more dangerous”. To the secularist, however, this is just an example of a more general principle – that all religions are dangerous; the more so, the more seriously their adherents take them. So the real question for Dr Williams is not how does British Islam live with British secularism, but how does the Church of England do so? From Lambeth Palace the apparatus of the Anglican establishment may look solid and enduring. Establishment shelters Anglicanism from the full force of the secular prevailing wind. But the Catholic adoption agency issue last year was a significant straw in that wind. It signified that it is secular values, not those enshrined in the common law, that are becoming the dominant cultural determinant of British society. Those values are utilitarian. It is a world where ends justify means, where talk of the sacredness of life is scoffed at and human rights are the subject of mere fashion, human autonomy in the pursuit of pleasure is the only worthwhile value and no one is neighbour to another. It is indeed the job of religions – Anglican, Jewish, Catholic,Muslim and the rest – to be a threat to those values. And not to apologise for it.

Longley misinterprets what secularists have said about this issue. It's not that we think religions are more dangerous the more seriously their adherents take them. Rather, the danger increases to the extent that religion seeks to interfere and exert power in the political sphere. And it's disingenuous of him to portray the Catholic gay adoption agency affair as a battle between 'utilitarian' values and a religious vision of the sacredness of human life. Rather, it was a contest between equality and tolerance for diverse lifestyles on the one hand, and (religiously-motivated) intolerance and prejudice on the other. To describe contemporary Britain as a society in which human rights are the subject of 'mere fashion' is to discredit the long and noble (and mostly secular) struggle to enshrine universal rights of liberty and equal treatment in law: a struggle in which religious institutions have been enemies as often as they have been allies.

Longley comes over all Buntingesque in his doomladen opinion of secular society as driven by nothing more than 'the pursuit of pleasure' - echoing Hobson's characterisation of Williams' vision of a world obsessed with 'consumerism, celebrity, hedonism'. Needless to say, this characterisation is absurdly reductive, ignoring the enormous diversity of motives and interests that guide the secular majority of the population. Atheist writers such as Dawkins and Hitchens are often accused of misrepresenting the diversity of religious belief and portraying all believers as rabid fundamentalists. Christian commentators like Longley and Williams are in danger of an even greater reductionism, mistaking one strand of the dynamic plurality that is secular society for the whole. In the process, they close down any possibility of dialogue with secular liberalism - as Hobson rightly suggests, the unspoken belief-system of the majority - and retreat into the defensive redoubt of religionism, forging dubious alliances against modernity with reactionaries of other faiths.

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